A tree turning leaf from verdant green to fiery vibrancy is like nature’s lightbulb moment – a flash of brilliance before winter sets in. The riotous conclusion, hidden since budbreak, appears from almost nowhere. Mother nature throws up her showgirl-skirt ruffles with abandon; flashes us her rainbow knickerbockers and chucks on her gaudiest baubles.
This sudden flash of brilliance soon gives way to the sedate evergreens and minimal silhouettes of winter. November is a month when glow, hue and luminescence are at the forefront of the imagination; the absence of summer colours and sunny brightness gives way to the brazen blaze of senescent fire you find in autumn colours, the reds, oranges, yellows and pinks which light up the grey skies like an open fire in a windowless boxroom.
Lux, lx, illuminance. Lumen, lm, luminous flux. Watt, W, power, radiant flux. These are scientific terms used to describe and measure the levels and power of light. One of the eminent founders (or ‘Lunarticks’) of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, James Watt – was responsible for coining the term ‘horsepower’ and was named for the measurement of radiant flux, or ‘watts’. The Lunar society were a group of industrialists and philosophers at the forefront of the ‘Birmingham Enlightenment’, who met monthly on the Sunday falling nearest to the full moon, between 1765 and 1813. They remain esteemed as one of Britain’s most significant and influential groups of active pre-industrialists, the original ‘ideas’ men.
One of my own early ‘lightbulb’ moments during my misspent youth in Yorkshire involved badgering my parents to take me and my friends across the perilous border into Lancashire to see a ridiculous amount of lightbulbs all in one place and make ourselves frightfully sick on the big dipper. Yes, the multiple highlights of Blackpool seemed to me to be the height of fun in the 1980’s. It certainly beats sitting in a wet field watching my dad turn the headlights of our Ford Cortina on and off on the Widdop Road c.1985. Incidentally, Strictly Come Dancing hailed from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom on Saturday 15 November (where if you went back in time, you could also see an eight year-old me dancing to the famous Wurlitzer organ). Lightbulb overload.
For an alternative route to illumination, you could swing east to Parcevall Hall Gardens and religious retreat for an almost impossibly contrasting experience. Enveloped in the undulating Wharfedale-towards-Nidderdale hillscape of North Yorkshire, Parcevall Hall was created in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s by one of the founding members of RHS Harlow Carr – W.P Milner. Parcevall Hall is now owned by the Diocese of Bradford and is still used as a religious and spiritual retreat today.
Milner was a devout man with a penchant for rare Chinese and Tibetan plants. He laid out his garden in the late 1920’s utilising natural outcrops of rock for his famous rockeries, and copious quantities of gritstone from the hall’s dedicated quarry were hauled down to shore up the immense buttresses he used to contain his ambitious cruciform terracing.
The result is a dramatic (and slightly gothic) combination of intriguing eastern planting, (much of which is characterised by vivid autumn foliage or berries) framed by immaculate, imposing stonework and structural, geometric hedgework.
Many old and heritage apple cultivars can be found here, and the bright palette reminds me that the traditional garlanding and decoration we see at winter festivals are all about bringing light and colour to the oppressive seasonal darkness and are undoubtedly inspired by the natural ornamentation we see on our native trees and in the hedgerows: Ilex aquifolium, Euonymus europaeus, Taxus baccata, and Malus species, fruits and berries beading the boughs well into winter.
Two works of art about light in the darkness, ideas as illumination – literally and metaphorically – sparks, inspiration and transformation.
Track of the Month
High Voltage, by Electric Six. Coincidentally, also from Detroit, Michigan – where Nocturne In Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket currently resides. Currently? See what I did there – I’m on (electrical) fire. Somebody pass the fire extinguisher.
Book of the Month
The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810, by Jenny Uglow
Plant of the Month
Rosa moyesii ‘Sealing Wax’, a species rose collected by all-things-eastern enthusiast W.P Milner in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
All images my own, with the exception of the landscape photograph of Blackpool Tower and the Illuminations and the botanical drawing featured at the end of the post, which are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I was disproportionately overjoyed when I stumbled upon Butea monosperma, a gorgeous tree which in India seems to embody the idea that the plants that grow naturally in the immediate locale should be used and revered where they grow, often to celebrate and facilitate necessities and local custom. Butea monosperma is not only emblematic of two important Indian regions – Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand – but is, both spiritually and in a practical sense, completely interwoven with the routines and rituals of daily life.
Butea monosperma is a flaming, beauteous beacon of floriferous ornament, as well as boasting numerous utilities and an entire pharmacopia of medicinal applications – among which (unromantically) is a hemorrhoid preparation made from the fruit. Fortunately, and in favour of romance, some of her common names are highly evocative; the most notable being ‘Flame of the Forest’. She is also known regionally as Palash and Dhak¹, and is, perhaps bizarrely, named after John Stuart – the third Earl of Bute, and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1762 until 1763.
So even her taxonomy is intertwined with the fascinating history of the British Empire and India’s shackled relationship with it. John Stuart (1712-1792) famously negotiated the end of the Seven Year’s War with France and her allies in 1754:
‘The French and British East India Companies and their respective Indian allies were at war with each other. The East India Company led by Robert Clive defeat the French ally, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the battle of Plassey ending the rule of the last independent Nawab of Bengal. This is judged to be one of the pivotal events leading to the formation of the British Empire in South Asia. The resulting central administration and governance starts a process that leads eventually to the formation of unified India’.
Excerpt from http://www.theeastindiacompany.com/index.php/24/timeline/. Read more about the incredible history of the East India Company and the formation of the British Empire using the link above. Also see BBC 2’s current exploration of the birth of empire through the lens of the East India Company:
The Third Earl of Bute’s time in office was notoriously short. He was much maligned – or even hated – in Parliament, until his resignation after only 11 months. He was also a Scotsman, which may or may not have been an advantage in Parliament at the time. (Speculation suggests the latter).
Unlike the poor old third Earl of Bute (luckily for Butea) she is much loved, and still employed in countless capacities. Our ‘Flame of the Forest’ also goes by the moniker ‘Bastard Teak’, (presumably partly because she never rots of succumbs to the unpleasantries of podiatric fungi).The wood is so hard and resistant to rot that countless tools and implements are made from it². In a country where monsoon conditions can cause persistent problems with mould and rot during the rainy season, this must be invaluable.
Maybe we could introduce her to Hebden Bridge? The good folk of t’Bridge could certainly do with a top-class rot-proof hardwood to make their famous clogs, ‘worn by Yorkshire folk long before industry and machinery invaded that county of broad acres’, as it’s monsoon conditions year-round in the Calder Valley. However, it is sub-arctic as well, so it may not be a match made in heaven. Incidentally, I had a Saturday job at Walkley’s clog factory in Hebden Bridge when I was 16.
Photograph from the Imperial War Museum archive collection:
Because of Butea monosperma’s resistance to rot and entropy, her wood is routinely used for water-bearing vessels and appliances, drainage and pipework. Butea wood is noteworthy for being used to make well curbs and water scoops, and deteriorates incredibly slowly. So yes, perfect for Yorkshire.
The flowers are crushed and used to make dyes³ for religious festivals such as the festival of colours (Holi), interior paint and even has a role in funerary rituals. Where mourners have no incarnation of the deceased but are assured that their loved one is dead, a piece of Butea wood is substituted and cremated in place of a body. The tree itself is also associated with the Hindu fire god, Agni¹.
The traditionally English name of ‘Parrot Tree’ refers to Butea monosperma’s beautiful beak-like red flowers, emanating from massed stalks with dark green cup-like calices. Myriad ‘beaks’ radiate from the mass of stalks, conjuring up visions of gruesome pirates angrily dismembering their noisy avian familiars, debeaking poor old Polly and chums in a bloodthirsty and merciless frenzy. (Or perhaps that’s just my riotous and slightly ridiculous imagination running wild).
Continuing along the avian theme, Butea is an ugly duckling. Gangly and awkward in December and January when the tree is denuded of leaves and flowers, the gnarled silvery-grey bark only accentuates what is essentially an ungainly form. Messy and unfocused, the limbs grow in all directions and with a distinct lack of elegance. This phase is thankfully short. As the flowers crowning the upper canopy of the tree start to appear in February and March, the apex of each tree seen en masse clearly justify the name ‘Flame of the Forest’, creating the illusion of waves of flame.
Butea monosperma is native to tropical and subtropical regions – more specifically parts of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. She belongs to the Leguminosae family, or Papilionideae. Other genera within the family include Acacia, Cercis (and a tropical vine wildly and rudely named Clitoria). According to http://www.theplantlist.org/ there are literally hundreds of other noteworthy friends and relations, too.
Butea monosperma is not only a beautiful tree, but provides seemingly endless resources for the people who are lucky enough to live alongside it. I have only touched on some of the uses of this versatile plant and, in particular, the medicinal applications merit significantly more detailed investigation. I hope to collaborate further on this subject with scientists and botanists in the near future.
Butea monosperma inspires artists, too:
Ranjani Shettar: http://talwargallery.com/ranjaniflame-pr/
Track of the Week
Light my Fire, The Doors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb5uJ4b78Q0
Book of the Week
The Strangler Vine, M.J Carter. A book about the oppressive and conflicting dilemmas of the Sepoys and the British military in India during the height of the East India Company’s powers. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-review-the-strangler-vine-by-mj-carter-9102257.html
A collective representing small-scale forest farmers and co-operatives in Rajasthan, India, is harvesting natural products and promoting the understanding of their native forest plants (including Butea monosperma) through carefully controlled, sustainable trade: http://www.samarthak.org/?page_id=46
‘The Rajasthan Forest Produce Processing Group Support Society ( Samarthak Samiti ) is a registered organization (under Act 1956), which is active in six districts of the state with the broad objective of providing guidance and motivation to smaller organizations, cooperative societies and such other societies, which are engaged with minor forest produce collection and devoted to the cause of biodiversity conservation’
Other relevant links:
Graphic illustration of Butea monosperma: http://salliesart.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/butea-monosperma.html
On Gardening in India: http://www.cityfarmer.org/indiagarden.html
Other articles on Butea monosperma: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/when-satpura-blushes
¹On Etymology, colloquialisms, general usage, medicinal applications, customs and ritual uses of Butea monosperma, Vinay Ranjam’s plant survey document for the Central National Herbarium, (Howrah) has been indispensible:
²Applications & uses from references kindly recommended by Indian Botanists via
³On natural dye:
General information on indigenous uses of Butea monosperma:
Since we discovered how to transform plants into articles of clothing, as an inherently creative species, we have probably also pondered how we can beautify and enhance an unnecessarily dull piece of garb and elevate it in order to make a more decorative and interesting garment. Perhaps rather like the lady in this wonderful Mexican-inspired assemblage. Creative.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of dyeing comes from Mohenjo-daro, or ‘The Mound of the Dead’ in the Sindh province in Pakistan.
Textile (cotton) artefacts have been recovered from the archaeological site, which was a huge settlement and one of the first notable early ‘cities’ in the modern sense of the word. The artefacts recovered from Sindh have included pieces of cotton dyed with a madder-based (Rubia tinctorum) vegetable dye, and Indigo, (Indigofera tinctoria) from an ancient dyeworks:
‘One of the greatest accomplishments of the subcontinent was the development of the technology of dyeing and patterning of fabric. This is evident from the discovery of a dyer’s workshop at Mohenjodaro. . Indigofera tinctoria, source of the most fabled dye, grew in abundance on the banks of the River Indus. Over time various embroidery techniques were developed in the quest to further embellish the fabrics’ (Article from The Free Library, Bilgrami, Noorjehan, 2008)
Common madder (Rubia tinctorum) produces anthraquinone pigments in its roots, one of them being alizarin (1,2 dihydroxy anthraquinone) which has been used for dyeing textiles since 2000 B.C.’
The incredibly long, thick roots of the common madder (Rubia tinctorum) are a source of red dyes generally known as ‘rose madder’ and ‘turkey red‘, the intensity of the final colour depending on the type and amount of mordant (dye fixing agent) used.
A celebration of colour in India, the spring festival of Holi (translated as ‘burning’) sees the fury and vibrancy of reds and oranges, cadmiums, and siennas, moody blues and verdant greens thrown every which way over the human body.
Primarily, Holi is a celebration of the beginning of the new season. There is also evidence in Indian literature that it has been a celebration of agriculture, good spring harvests and fertility – (which has latterly been transposed onto married women). In the Hindu faith, it is commonly seen as a time to enjoy the new proliferation of spring colours.
Some participants in Holi still prepare plant-based pigments derived from Butea monosperma, a beautiful tree with flaming blossoms indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical Asia. The flowers are crushed to yield a bright yellow dye.
The festival ushers in the dominance of good over evil and the arrival of spring. Traditionally it is a day of forgiveness and an opportunity to socialise, heal rifts in relationships, and generally have a darn good hoot. Holi is celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, and is closely linked with the full moon falling closest to it.
As a colour steeped in mystery and royal mythology, purple is an interesting colour case history. ‘Royal Purple’ or Tyrian Purple, was the colour of choice for the gods and kings of the ancient Greeks (and more latterly of diminutive purple pop-professor Prince – legend has it he still insists of Tyrean methods to embellish his raiments. (Not actually true).
The purple dye known as Tyrean or Royal Purple was extracted from the mucous glands of Mediterranean Murex brandaris (a species of mollusc) by the Canaanites and Phoenicians. It was initially extremely costly and time consuming to extract – four million molluscs for one pound of dye (hence the preserve of the regal).
The pauper’s version of Royal Purple could be simulated using a lichen, Roccella tinctoria. Unfortunately it was just as stinky and unpleasant as the Phoenician city of Tyre (famed for Tyrean Purple) and its overwhelming stench of rotting shellfish, because it requires weeks of steeping in ammonia (or piss, to you and me) for the colour to bind.
While Royal Purple is not derived from plants, composite purple dyes can be made by mixing blue dye extracted from Isatis tinctoria (woad) and Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) with Rubia tinctorum, (common madder).
Other plants capable of producing purple shades are Morus nigra (Mulberry), Bryonia dioica (white bryony) and Caesalpinia echinata (Brazilwood) using sulphuric acid (or vitriol) as a mordant. I often employ vitriol myself on people I don’t like. Not the acid version – that would be GBH. Just the less harmful ‘ascerbic tongue’, which runs in the family. And I usually keep it to myself, (where possible).
‘Mauveine’, ‘Perkin’s Mauve’, or ‘Aniline Purple’ was the first synthetic chemical dye to be invented. It was discovered by William Henry Perkin by accident in 1856, in a failed attempt to sythesize quinine.
Usually I include a Hebden Bridge quip but I can’t find many reasons to joke this week. Before the height of the Industrial Revolution in West Yorkshire, I’ve heard anecdotes that the river Calder was hopping with salmon. From 1850 onwards, there were no fish stocks left, largely as a result of the chemical runoff industrial dyeworks discharged along the banks.
As a child growing up in Hebden Bridge, I still saw what appeared to be similar practices happening from time to time well into the 1980’s. Apparently fish are now beginning to reappear.
Track of the Week
‘Purple Rain’, by Prince
Also highly recommended viewing: ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’ a triptych of programmes with Dr. James Fox commissioned by BBC4 in 2012.
Book of the Week
‘The Colour Purple’, by Alice Walker
More Blogs on Plant Dyes and the Iconography of Colour
I have used what appear to be reliable sources, you can find further information on these by clicking on the links. Where I have quoted directly I have provided further information.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, attributions stated where necessary